It’s that time of the year again when United Methodist churches all over the country are gathering for Annual Conference.  For those who aren’t familiar with the United Methodist system, I’ll give you a brief and horribly simplistic idea of what this means.  Churches within a certain geographic area are all part of an Annual Conference.  Where I live, it’s the Indiana Conference, and encompasses the entire state of Indiana.

Every year, the Annual Conference meets to discuss some of the business of the church, and to also take care of a few other things… like remembering those who have passed, commissioning new ministers, and ordaining those who have made it through the commissioning process (that’s me this year).  Every four years, we have to vote on representatives to go to General Conference, which is when United Methodists from all over the world gather to meet and speak for the United Methodist Church as a whole.  We get to do that this year.

Last week, a friend from seminary, Matt Judkins who serves a church in Oklahoma, posted a couple of thoughts on Twitter that I found very interesting, and thought I’d share.  He said (and I’m cleaning it up a little bit from tweet form… and his language, he has quite the foul mouth…. I’m kidding!!!!):

[It’s] interesting to follow hashtags from UM Annual Conferences and compare the activity to that of non-denominational conferences like Catalyst…

[There are] far fewer participants and tweets in the UMC for one.  Representative of the demographics, I suppose.

Also, broadly speaking, more wrestling with systems (dashboards, etc.) and not ideas (mission, theology, Scripture) in the UMC conferences.

I know some will say the purposes are different, but should they be?  Also, I think the sheer [number] of tweets reflect relative comfort with new technology.

Matt brings up some great points.  I know through the years, I have heard a lot of people complain about Annual Conference being pointless, and perhaps Matt has really hit the nail on the head.

First off, the demographics of the denominational conferences are significantly different than the non-denominational conferences.  There aren’t a lot of younger people at the Annual Conferences.  If there were, the average age of clergy in the UMC wouldn’t be 51.5 (the most recent number I could find, and it’s 6 years old – these same people aren’t getting younger).  In fact, in that same report that came out in 2005, only 5% of UMC clergy were under 35.

I remember two years ago when Adam Hamilton was at our Annual Conference for a pre-conference teaching time.  He had everybody under 35 stand up, and there couldn’t have been more than 50 people who stood up, and there are over 1000 churches in the Indiana Conference.  We are an aging clergy, and we need to be intentional about helping young people respond to the call to ministry.  Certainly, God is not calling fewer people into ministry.  But people aren’t interested in the systems of denominationalism as much as they are interested in doing ministry.

I think if the United Methodist Church is going to move forward and make a significant impact for the future religious landscape of America, then it needs to address these issues of reaching younger generations, and encouraging them to hear and respond to God’s call.

Second, how much of our time at Annual Conference is spent discussing things like budget, rules and regulations, Trustee issues, and not discussing how we can be about the mission of the United Methodist Church – to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?  I will give some credit where it is due.  Each of the last two years, there has been a teaching time at our Annual Conference.  One year, as mentioned above, Adam Hamilton came, and another  time, Bishop Schnase came to discuss the Five Practices.  Now, certainly, you could argue that the administrative things that we discuss are things that are mandated by the Book of Discipline to be approved by the Annual Conference.  And, without a doubt, administration is the skeleton and structure upon which we can do ministry; but what if we came to an Annual Conference that was designed with the intention of a non-denominational conference like Catalyst?

Those types of conferences are conferences that engage people on many different levels to rethink how they do ministry.  Certainly there can be time in the Annual Conference schedule to make this happen as well as accomplishing the necessary (and required) administrative tasks.  One thing I know for sure, there would be fewer people skipping out on Conference and calling it a waste of time if we could do this.

So, what are we to do about it?  What would this kind of Annual Conference look like?  To be honest, I’m not really sure how the schedule would work itself out, but I think we could do it, and it would be a welcome change in how we approach the Annual Conference sessions.  If the Annual Conference is, as the Book of Discipline describes it, the basic unit of the United Methodist Church, then it should be the perfect forum for such discussion on the ministry of the United Methodist Church.  I don’t know how prevalent an idea this is though.  My impression of most Annual Conferences is that they are all about the administration, which, again, is important, but let’s also get the ideas on our theology, our ministry and our mission highlighted.